In 2009, when Senegalese kora player and griot singer Diali Keba Cissokho married Hilary Stewart, a Pittsboro native, the two had a big decision to make: stay in his hometown of Mbour, Senegal, or build a life together near her family in North Carolina? Cissokho—already a well-known bandleader and session musician in Senegal—went to his family of professional musicians for advice.
"My family said, 'Diali, you know what? Music is music. Life is life. But wife is wife,'" Cissokho recalls. "They told me, 'You have to go help your wife.'"
Leaving behind family and musical ties in Senegal wasn't easy, but Cissokho made the move to Pittsboro. Now his new extended family structure includes not only his American in-laws but some North Carolina musicians with whom he's formed an equally tight-knit group—socially as well as musically.
Kairaba—their experimental kora-and-guitar-driven West African dance band—ignited like a match on dry tinder when Cissokho first got together with John Westmoreland, Will Ridenour, Austin McCall and Jonathan Henderson this past January. Kairaba made its public debut at the Nightlight in February, followed by a tent-shaking performance at Shakori Hills in April. Since then, cognoscenti have reveled in a series of free concerts at Talulla's. Word of mouth began to snowball earlier this month when Kairaba opened for Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré at Local 506, introducing the band to a packed house of new fans. Its next show, at the Haw River Ballroom on Wednesday, Sept. 14, is a fundraiser to benefit African women farmers.
"It's a big deal for me, because people need to know Diali. Here, people don't know Diali. In Senegal, people know Diali a lot," said Cissokho after the Local 506 set. Back home, he's worked with popular acts such as Souleymane Faye and Carlou D, as well as his own bands.
"We're meeting a lot of people who are just seeing us for the first time, who are surprised we exist," added Ridenour, Kairaba's djembe and conga player.
But no one was more surprised to find Kairaba here than Cissokho himself.
"Finding these guys was a very big surprise. I'm serious, big surprise. They are all great musicians. Will has a good, crazy brain. Uncle, he can hear! This is a musician," says Cissokho. His reference to Ridenour as "Uncle" is a token of respect; Ridenour's African family name, which he received while studying music in Mali, is the same as that of Cissokho's mother.
"Will told me his African name, so I say, maybe he is my family! I don't know, because griot families are like that," Cissokho says. The thought brings smiles, but there's a serious sentiment behind it. "I'm so happy to have these guys. They really welcomed me. We treat each other like family."
The band's name comes from a Manding word for "peace and love." And while Cissokho may have uprooted his old life in Senegal for his new love, an even older love—for his kora—remains a constant in his life and central to his identity as a griot.
"When I pick up my kora, my kora can tell me who I am. Before I met Hilary, I met my kora. I used to tell Hilary, my kora is my first wife," Cissokho says.
The art of playing kora in West Africa is passed down through families. But to outsiders, the long-necked harp-lute with a large gourd resonator remains deliberately shrouded in an aura of mystery.
"If I tell you, 'I'm going to tell you the kora's secrets,' I'm a liar. I'm not going to tell you that," Cissokho says. "The kora has so many things inside. If you have a million years, I can teach you the kora; but don't think that Diali is going to tell you what's inside the kora. Never. It's because I know where this comes from. I know what kora is."
Nevertheless, even back in Senegal, Cissokho—a hip-hop fan—was known for putting his own spin on traditional griot music. One such departure, according to Bouna Ndiaye, host of the syndicated WNCU-FM, 90.7, program Bonjour Africa, is Kairaba's blending of the languages and musical styles of Senegal's Wolof and Manding cultures. In addition, Cissokho plays the kora standing up, which is almost unheard of, while belting out his charismatic, smoky lead vocals. But standing to play isn't even Cissokho's most unconventional stance; with Hendrix-like virtuosity, he sometimes plays the kora while lying down, or he holds it over his head, keeping the instrument steady with his teeth.
"Kairaba has added a rock flavor to the Senegalese music, which makes it very accessible to the young audience in the Triangle. This is a very good thing," says Ndiaye.
Another element in that mix is Berklee-trained, Pittsboro-based electric guitarist John Westmoreland. He had zero experience with African guitar before Kairaba, but once Cissokho gave him some CDs to listen to, he picked up the patterns intuitively.
"John and I used to hang out a lot because John and my wife [go way back]. I gave him a lot of different styles; he's so good, he got everything," Cissokho says.
Feeding the synergy in the rhythm section, drum kit drummer Austin McCall and djembe drummer Ridenour share digs in Carrboro. The two roommates have both spent time in Mali, and they keep their gear permanently set up in the living room, where members rehearse and meet to discuss band business over tea, a West African custom.
"We play drums together all the time, and we're working on new stuff constantly," says Ridenour. "We try to fashion it after a specific West African style, but we also can't help but add our own personal little touch to it."
"We are in each others' worlds [via various projects, such as Paperhand Puppet Intervention] a good bit," says McCall. "Will's one of the best percussionists I've ever played with, and communicating with another drummer like that is really great." Indeed, during live performances, the two seem almost giddy at times, locking eyes as they synch up Kairaba's exhilarating drum breaks.
Bassist Jonathan Henderson—also a percussionist with a background in Brazilian and West African drumming—was the last to join Kairaba. Of his current projects (which include Invisible, Onyx Club Boys and Midtown Dickens), Kairaba excites him most right now.
"It's really dynamic; I'm learning a ton playing with Diali," Henderson says. Ironically, Henderson didn't answer the call right away. "I was very overcommitted at the time," he remembers. In the end, Cissokho's intensity won him over.
"The other guys told me once, Diali was playing the djembe and smacked his head on the edge of the drum. He'd cut his head open, and was bleeding, but he just kept right on playing." The story intrigued Henderson enough to give Kairaba a closer look. "The first time we all got together, I was hooked. And it's just taken off really quickly."
Kairaba's sound and repertoire, already formidable, continue to evolve noticeably from show to show. Most of the songs are Cissokho's, with group arrangements, but increasingly, other members are beginning to contribute compositional ideas. And as Cissokho's English grows, he's reaching out more and more to Triangle audiences in their own language. "It's going to be a very exponential group," says Ndiaye.
Wednesday, Kairaba gets ready to make another growth spurt: headlining a first-of-its-kind benefit concert for African women farmers at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. Funds raised will directly support the work of Nanga Kaye, a research agronomist with Integrated Community Development International, who splits his time between Cary and the Central African Republic. The brainchild of Kaye's friend Lea Clayton, the event, "Nourishing Community From North Carolina to Africa," is intended to bring people together to think about food and its relationship to community.
Clayton and Kaye, a native of Chad, met in 1996 at Sustenance Farm, a permaculture organic farm near Pittsboro, where both worked as apprentices. "I was 20 years old and I was working next to an African who's been farming by hand since a baby. He was amazing. He taught me a lot," Clayton recalls.
Kaye now teaches innovative farming techniques he learned in North Carolina to farmers near the Central African Republic capital of Bangui. Seventy percent of them are women. Several decades of civil war have devastated the country's infrastructure and left many people insecure for sources of food.
"The problem of malnutrition has reached emergency status," Kaye explains. "Humanitarian organizations from around the world are distributing packaged foods throughout the country, but we want to take a more proactive approach of really strengthening the farmers, and building their capacity to grow this nutritious food themselves."
Attendees can meet Kaye and learn more about his work. In addition to Kairaba, the event also includes Paperhand Puppet Intervention, storyteller Louise Kessel, gospel singer Beverly McClean and women farmers of Saxapahaw.
Cissokho, whose mother raised crops in her village in Senegal, is eager to bring his kora to the event.
"My instrument doesn't like to go everywhere to play. I respect my instrument. Why did I accept to play this benefit? Because the kora is an instrument of blessing. With both my music and my kora, I want to bless people in Africa. My instrument can make you sad; it can make you happy; it can make you think about setting a good example. If you hear my instrument, you're going to do right," Cissokho says.
Adds Kaye, "This may be a local event, but with a global ramification. We're impacting lives beyond the Triangle. It is a celebration, too, of the courage of these women out here; they are people who are rising against many odds. I would hope for people who come to the event to feel connected to people many many miles away from them, but with the same spirit of hope."
"Nourishing Community From North Carolina to Africa" runs from 6–9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. Admission is on a sliding scale from $10 to $100. Details at www.hawriverballroom.com.